Developer: Irem Software Engineering
Publisher: Atlus USA, 505 Games
Platform: PlayStation 2
Freedom in video games is an interesting concept. Intriguing, often expansive worlds and environments are made for games and quite often you want to just run around and explore. However, there is a big divide between how ‘Eastern’ (generally Japanese) and ‘Western’ (generally American) games show freedom. That is to say, Eastern games are generally very linear, with the designers wanting you to play a specific way and follow what they’ve scripted out – such as Final Fantasy XIII, which doesn’t have any sidequests until fairly late in the game. Western games have a tendency to be very ‘open’ and let you do what you want – The Elder Scrolls and Grand Theft Auto series being prime examples of this.
Steambot Chronicles, interestingly enough, decides to ride the line between the two in a steam-powered mech.
Originally developed in 2005 by Irem, known for their R-Typeseries of shooters amongst other things, Steambot Chronicles opens with the main character, Vanilla Bean washed up on a shore from a shipwreck, with a young woman trying to wake him up. Coriander, as she introduces herself, asks Vanilla what he’s doing there but he can’t seem to remember. Yes, Vanilla has the age-old literary illness – amnesia. Coriander decides to take Vanilla to the nearby town, but as they go to leave, a blue Trotmobile (the game’s ridable mechs) fires a missle which causes a boulder to block the beach’s only exit. The two look around for a way out and find a basic Trotmobile that seems to have washed up from the ship. Vanilla decides to pilot it and uses it to clear the way back to Nefroburg.
From this point, one notices two things – the mech controls are really strange and there are a LOT of dialogue options.
The controls actually share more in common with Katamari Damacy than they do another mech game, like say, Armored Core. The left analogue stick controls the left leg of the Trotmobile, the right stick the right leg. What this means is, if you just push the left stick forward, only your left leg will move and you’ll just go in circles. Push both sticks forward, however, and both legs move, allowing you to go forward. You can strafe by pushing both sticks left or right and can quickly turn by pushing one forward and one back. Pulling both sticks back will move backwards and guard at the same time. Clicking both sticks in lets you pick things up, such as cars and rocks, then fling them at enemies. Your Trot has two weapons, one for each arm, controlled by L1 and R1. These can be anything from small cannons to swords to shields and water guns.
There’s a fair bit of customization to be had with the Trotmobile. You can change colours, design an emblem for it, change the legs from your normal two legs to something like a spider tank or reverse-joint legs, place a keg on the back for transporting liquids, a flatbed for moving lumber, a carriage for taking people places.. there are a lot of options.
Combat against enemies is somewhat unforgiving. Your canons have limited ammo, your sword’s durability drops fast and you often can’t take too many hits. Enemies like to gang up on you and move around a lot. Thankfully, you can do the same. By hitting L2, you can do a boost, which can be used to close distance between you and an enemy or avoid fire. R2 allows you to jump up in the air. Boosting and jumping, useful as they are, drain your fuel gauge faster than just moving does, however. You can also grab normal-sized enemies and either use them as shields or throw them at other enemies. You have to be quick though, as they can break out of your grasp without much effort.
Thankfully, refuelling and repairing spots are plentiful. You have to pay for the service, but defeated enemies drop a bit of coin and a bit of fuel, so you’re never too stuck. There are some large bosses to fight, but they go down pretty easily and aside from their size, aren’t much to write home about.
When you head into a town or village, you lose direct control of your Trotmobile and instead choose your destination from a list, which makes your Trotmobile use the roads (and follow road rules like traffic lights and right of way) and make its way to your destination. However, say you select “Nefroburg Bakery” from the list. You don’t just go to the bakery, you park the Trotmobile in the parking area near the bakery and then hop off, giving you full control of Vanilla to walk into said bread store. Not every point of interest in a town has a parking area, though, so you have to walk around a bit to get to places. This is all fine, you have a good map to help you out, but Vanilla doesn’t run terribly fast and swapping from the controls of the Trot to Vanilla is a bit disorienting. Speaking of Vanilla’s running, he has a hunger function, where if he goes too long without food he starts to hobble about, holding his stomach and slouching making getting places bit of a pain. It sounds bad, but it doesn’t affect your Trotmobile at all and is easily offset by carrying ten or so croissants with you.
Towns are also where most of the side-content tends to happen. For example, early in the game you join a band with Connie and her friends, with you playing the harmonica. Once you’ve learned how to play it, in a pre-Guitar Hero style minigame, you can park your Trotmobile and practice any songs you’ve learned. If you’re good enough, people will crowd around you and leave you a bit of cash. My favorite part of busking is when the white-collar business man type characters, complete with briefcase, turn up and start clapping their hands above their heads – the briefcase, which seems to be welded to their hands, also goes above their head.
There are ten different instruments, all with different minigames. Some of these instruments are bought, some given to you. In the case of the electric guitar, you help invent it.
The game’s freedom comes in with the side stuff you can do in towns and the huge amount of responses you get to choose from in conversations. Generally, whenever Vanilla has a line, you pick it. For example, when you meet someone new, you can wave to them, shake their hand, even salute them. Hell, the game has a counter dedicated to the number of times you’ve introduced yourself via salute. Sometimes you want to be careful with what you choose. For one thing, you can annoy Connie and Savory so much that they’ll refuse to have anything to do with you outside of the story and even then they’ll complain. If you’re good to them however, you can show them around town, bring them back to your pad (if you rent and decorate one) and have them cook you a meal.
Halfway through the game, a terrorist organisation takes control of the oilfields, pushing the price of fuel for your Trotmobile up. It’s at this point you’re given the choice between two very different second halves of the game, which lead to distinct endings, giving good incentive to replay the game (as if doing an ‘all salute’ playthrough wasn’t incentive enough).
Unfortunately the game does have some technical issues. The graphics aren’t anything particularly special – they’re nice and clean and easy to see – but the frame-rate quite often takes a nosedive, even when there’s not much of anything going on. Worse yet, it’ll happen during the music minigames, totally throwing off your rhythm.
Steambot Chronicles was fairly well received when it came out. So Irem did what any company would do – make a sequel. The PSP saw two Steambot games, though one is just Blockus, the boardgame equivalent of Tetris, with a Steambot skin over the top of it. The other game, Steambot Chronicles: Battle Tournament, is as you might guess from the name, a combat-focused game. In fact, aside from a few little fetch quest jobs you really don’t do anything but fight in the arena.
Steambot Chronicles 2 is a sad tale. Announced with a lengthy video in 2006 at the Tokyo Game Show for the PlayStation 3, the game was in development hell for years. In 2010 Irem stated that they were still working on the game. In May 2011, shortly after the Fukushima tsunami disaster, it was officially cancelled along with the very-nearly done Disaster Report sequel Irem were working on. At that time, Irem also pulled all the R-Type games from the PlayStation Store and the producer of Steambot Chronicles and Disaster Report left the company. A disappointingly bitter end to an interesting and unique franchise.